Why aren’t there any technologists on the NSA review panel?

August 28, 2013

(Patrick Semansky / AP)

The White House released the official list of members for the panel to review government surveillance policies. It included the four former White House and intelligence community staffers previously reported by ABC—Michael Morell, Richard Clarke, Cass Sunstein and Peter Swire—and one additional academic, Geoffrey Stone.

Stone hired Obama for his job at the University of Chicago law school. After Ed Snowden's leaks, he described Obama as a "rational civil libertarian," and suggested that liberals who expected Obama to be a strong advocate of civil liberties were engaging in "wishful thinking." ABC news describes him as a "longtime Obama supporter and self-described informal adviser to Obama's 2008 campaign."

Stone previously criticized the president's approach to government transparency in a New York Times editorial, but recently gave an interview to the Democracy Now! in which he defended the legality of NSA surveillance programs:

So far as I can tell from everything that’s been revealed [by Edward Snowden], absolutely nothing illegal or criminal about these programs. They may be terrible public policy—I’m not sure I approve of it at all—but the fact is the claim that they’re unconstitutional and illegal is wildly premature.

Some in the tech and privacy communities expressed dismay at the lack of tech expertise on the panel. Chris Soghoian, principal technologist and a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, for example, asked on Twitter, "Is it too much to ask that the NSA surveillance review panel include at least one person who knows how to actually run a packet sniffer?"

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the senior staff technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology where Swire is a Fellow, argued on Twitter than Swire's publication history showed he was technically literate, but wrote he would have liked to see someone like Princeton computer science professor Ed Felten on the panel.

Felten recently submitted a legal brief supporting an ACLU lawsuit challenging the NSA's dragnet collection of domestic call records in the form of metadata. In the brief, he argues that metadata can be extremely revealing -- showing if someone calls an abortion clinic, or suicide hotlines, for example. He also notes that this information becomes even more revealing when collected in bulk because it can effectively establish not only the timeline of specific events, but provide a fingerprint of your personal relationships.

Having a technologist like Felten on the panel could provide much-needed insight into the broader technical implications of government surveillance practices. For example, the National Security Agency (NSA) has claimed a data collection practice later ruled unconstitutional by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court was the result of a complex technical problem rather than an overreach by the NSA during a press call. Someone with technical training would be well-positioned to evaluate the technical merits of this claim.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
SECTION: {section=business/technology, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=business/technology, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Andrea Peterson · August 28, 2013